EDINBURG — When the University of Virginia faced UCLA for the men’s soccer national championship in 2014, current RGV FC Toros midfielders Pablo Aguilar and Todd Wharton were starting side by side.
Wharton was a junior and Aguilar was a freshman as the Cavaliers won a shootout to claim the NCAA title. Also starting for UVA was Sheldon Sullivan, who has spent most of the season training with RGV FC after being drafted by the Houston Dynamo. In the waning minutes of regulation, Aguilar was subbed out for Eric Bird, who wasn’t starting because of a groin injury. Bird played with RGV FC the past two seasons before signing a first-team deal with Houston this year.
The Virginia connection runs deep in the RGV FC organization, with Wharton and Aguilar expected to again start in the midfield as the Toros host Sacramento Republic FC at 7:30 tonight.
“At first, I saw Todd as more of an experienced guy. Older. Really good player. A leader on the team,” Aguilar said. “He has become one of my best friends here at RGV, because we were together in college. I think he’s a great guy, a great player, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with him here.”
Wharton and Aguilar also teamed up as midfield starters at UVA in 2015 — Wharton’s final college season. Off the field, Wharton said he spent most of his time with his teammates who were about his age. But between the lines, Wharton helped Aguilar find his place in Virginia’s system.
With RGV FC, Wharton and Aguilar have become tighter in both regards.
“We’ve gotten a lot closer since he’s moved down here,” Wharton said. “Hanging out almost every day. So it’s going to be fun with him here.”
Wharton said Aguilar has grown greatly as a player since their time together at Virginia. Instead of always trying to take defenders on with his strong dribbling, Aguilar plays the ball more quickly to better involve his teammates and develop the attack. Wharton said he and Aguilar were in constant communication on the pitch during RGV FC’s season opening 1-1 draw against Saint Louis FC on March 16.
“You can see his quality. He makes good runs with the ball. He can find the final pass. He can score goals,” Wharton said. “He can do it all, so I think he’s going to be really important for us moving forward.”
Aguilar played a critical role in the opener, scoring the Toros’ lone goal. But RGV FC coach Gerson Echeverry said the score “masked some things that I think we need more from him.” After playing the No. 10 role during his time at Virginia and scoring 14 goals during his final two seasons, Aguilar is being asked to play No. 8 with RGV FC, meaning a little less offensive playmaking and a little more defending and distributing. Echeverry said Aguilar was too quick to play the ball sideways or backward during the opener rather than looking for ways to push play forward. Fatigue also became a factor down the stretch, as Aguilar played the full 90 minutes.
“He has to get used to it, but he’s so talented,” Echeverry said of Houston’s 59th overall pick in the 2018 draft. “He has such a great knack for the game. His feet are very good. He has a lot of ability. … For him to move up to the first team, that’s the spot he needs to master.”
Aguilar said RGV FC is “becoming his new home,” adding that he was always open to playing in the USL and was happy to simply be drafted at all.
He said he’s enjoyed the process of transitioning to a new position and noted that his overall shift to professional soccer has been made easier by having Virginia teammates in close proximity.
“There’s a natural chemistry when they come from the same school and have played together,” Echeverry said. “There’s an understanding, and there’s an easiness about finding each other and playing with each other.”
Aguilar said he’s especially close with Sullivan after the two played together for four years at UVA. Houston selected Sullivan seven picks after nabbing Aguilar.
“When I found out that Sheldon was also getting drafted by Houston, it was great news for me,” Aguilar said. “I texted him immediately, and we did the whole preseason with Houston together. We came here together, and it’s been great so far.”